Questions about Lionel, and the Roster’s Future

The Brooklyn Nets are 1-9. They have a bottom 3 defense, and a bottom 5 offense. Close games. Blowouts. Win against the Rockets (who are an early disappointment) aside, this is a bad basketball team in 2015-2016, however you slice it. That does not need to be a reflection on the past or future. The facts, simply, are the facts. The 2015-2016 Nets are one of the NBA’s bottom feeders.

And it’s not hard to see why: nearly every Net is being asked to do too much, because of roster deficiencies.

Brook Lopez flat out gets too much flack from many fans, for the team’s struggles. He’s just one piece, and on a roster that has just 2 legitimate NBA starters, he is far too widely blamed for the team’s struggles. That blame comes from a common place: it is common that those who play basketball expect a lot from the big man, the tallest player. And that leads to inflated expectations for Lopez. Lopez is a good player. He’s probably a very good player. But he is not a great player, and gets criticized for not being great. Still, the NBA is not a league of stars and scrubs: rotation players at all levels matter. Look at the Knicks: they are vastly improved without the addition of a star or anything close, and that is because they have replaced non-rotation players with rotation players.

Lopez is a solid second option on offense, and a decent defensive big who defends well enough to function defensively around solid defenders. He’s masquerading as a lead offensive option and lead defender (when Rondae-Hollis Jefferson is sitting), expected to anchor a bad perimeter defense by erasing all its mistakes and breakdowns. Frankly, it is mind boggling that anyone would want to sell off the team’s only clear above average starter, when the team has so few assets to get a player of his caliber. And while some cite the NBA’s clear small ball movement, bigs are still valuable assets in small ball. First, with teams being flat out smaller, that makes big scorers more deadly — there’s a reason Timofey Mozgov starred over 3.5 finals games. Second, skilled bigs open the perimeter for smaller players to shine.

Thaddeus Young is very good as a fourth or perhaps fifth starter. A clear starter, a good player who can thrive next to your foundational pieces as a swiss army knife. Think of the Andre Iguodala role for Golden State (Iguodala could have started over Harrison Barnes, easily). Young is masquerading, however, as a second option.

The masquerading occurs, by necessity, up and down the roster. Bojan Bogdanovic, so long as he shoots 28.6% from 3 and plays subpar defense (the former really needs to improve, if the latter is what it is), is a 7th or 8th man, masquerading as a classic “elite sixth man” who finishes games.

Joe Johnson? I am forever grateful for what he’s done as a Net, and he will be one of my favorite players until he retires.  But facts are facts: his decline started last year, and has accelerated. He’s shooting 32.5%, 19.5% from 3, and playing below average defense. That is not rotation caliber basketball, regardless of his name and my feelings; nevertheless he is masquerading as a starter. Markel Brown’s numbers are similarly brutal and while I like his defensive potential, he’s not competent offensively, to a point he may not be a rotation piece of yet.

Combine Jarrett Jack as a backup point guard posing as a starter (check these depth charts out: look how much worse Jack is than most point guards – http://espn.go.com/nba/depthcharts), Andrea Bargnani a pine rider as a rotation player, Shane Larkin (who is too small to guard most anyone) and Thomas Robinson (who cannot score) are first time true rotation players.

This is a bad roster. And this is what happens on bad rosters.

So this season for the Nets is about 2016, and beyond. Who on the roster can be part of their 2016-2017 future? And in what capacity? From the coach down, here is a look.

Lionel Hollins: Should we be concerned

One thing sold as a positive for the Nets going forward is stability on the bench in the form of Lionel Hollins. And while the Nets are 1-8, to assume this roster would be playoff caliber with a different coach, or significantly better, and simply pin that on Lionel, is patently unfair. As discussed above, this roster is simply not good You can put Popovich or Phil in charge — this group is not accomplishing anything. 

Lionel is far from perfect, but it bears repeating: you can optimize this roster, and you will struggle to win games. 

However, there are some concerns with Lionel that bear note going forward. None of this is automatically fireable, or automatically means he is a bad coach. But there are real concerns that bear watching and monitoring.

Lionel’s over reliance on “security blankets” and vets like Jarrett Jack

Coaches are people. And people, naturally, will develop a level of comfort with other people, for a variety of reasons. Many coaches tend to have quick leashes with young, inexperienced players; there is comfort in knowing what a player can do because you have seen it occur. Lionel has that type of comfort with Jack, and with other veterans, which is a concern going forward. 

On one hand, it routinely bothers me when coaches are reflexively criticized for not giving minutes to young players because “they should develop and it’s a lost season.” Part of building a culture of hard work and accountability is making players earn minutes, rather than giving players minutes because they are young, and expected to help lead the future.  That, rather, creates a culture where players, empowered by the unearned, feel they can drive the bus, complain to their agents, or the like.

But on the other hand, the requirement that all minutes be earned should apply to veterans as well: regardless of their names. Yes, RHJ, Larkin, Robinson, and the like should earn their time.  But so should Johnson, Jack, Bargnani, and Wayne Ellington.

Johnson leads the Nets in minutes. Respectfully, he has not earned that.  RHJ and Ellington are essentially splitting time.  Ellington is a sharpshooter shooting a brutal 30% from 3 — he has not earned that.  RHJ has played hard, his attitude has been pleasant, eager, and enthusiastic, and he has brought a nice mix of “I am pissed we lost,” “I need to be better,” “but I am a good locker room guy,” to the table. Yes, RHJ must earn his minutes: but compared to the Nets other wings, hasn’t he? Robinson and Bargnani similarly split time (and there’s not much time available given the Nets’ starters up front) — has Bargnani earned that time?

Will Lionel embrace modern NBA offense: 

Anyone following the league knows: the NBA has become a pick and roll, three point shooting, spread the floor league. Nobody could have watched the Warriors torch the league and actually believe that the longball is a loser. The Nets, meanwhile, are taking just 16.2 threes a night, and shooting more does not seem to be a priority.

Sure, one counter may be the Nets are shooting just 25% on those threes, so why take more.  But even if you miss your threes, taking them has value in and of itself, by getting defenses to say “I have to step out there to guard the line.” Do that, and even if you are missing, you create more space in the interior, which helps your interior scorers.

It is easy to say Brooklyn’s tendency to the isolation has occurred due to Joe’s presence on the roster, or the players themselves, as it hasn’t varied from coach to coach. But one difference between modern and old school coaching is the latter tends to lean more on taking advantage of mismatches, whereas the former relies more on swinging the ball and letting the movement open up angles and opportunities. Lionel is out school, and his offense trends old school.

In addition to Lionel, there are concerns to monitor with the roster

Can a playoff caliber defense be constructed around Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young? 

This is a real issue.  The Nets were a bottom 5 defense post Thad deal, and also are a bottom 5 defense now. Brook is an average defender. He struggles guarding in space, and is a good but not great rim protector. Thad struggles with bigger 4’s. The two of them as a tandem will need to be supported by multiple good perimeter defenders going forward: RHJ is a start, but he is just a start. For now, it’s easy to see why the defense is bad: who on the roster is a plus defender, besides RHJ (a clear one), Markel (whose awful offensively), and Thad (who has clear defensive weaknesses).  

Can Bogdanovic consistently make threes or play any defense?

I like Bogdanovic. He is one of the Nets’ best young players. He is a future core piece. He has a nice attitude. And just 1.1 seasons into his NBA career, it cannot be said that he is what he is, without a doubt.

However, the bottom line cannot be sugarcoated — the Nets need Bojan to take some developmental leaps if he is to become an anchor like piece going forward.

Bojan is shooting 28.6% from 3. That is, flat out, a bad number. He shot just 29.4% from 3 in his last year with Fenerbache. His 35.5% number last year was strong, but bolstered by a wicked good second half, and it remains to be seen if he can be a 35-40% shooter from 3 on a year to year basis. Couple that with his subpar defense (he is slow, and gets both beat off the bounce by 2’s and bodied by 3’s) and right now Bojan is a player from whom you can see the outlines of a legitimate NBA starter, but whom currently is not at that level.

Can he get there?

Can one of Markel and RHJ become a true 2 way player

RHJ has been marvelous given the expectations. He flat out should be taking minutes from Joe and Ellington.  Markel is a very nice defender, with a great attitude. He should play more solely due to those skills.

Still, Markel’s offense is not rotation caliber at this time. Perhaps his defense has earned him time, but his offense makes it tough to play him 20+ minutes. And while RHJ’s %’s are good, he passes up a lot of shots and those numbers are inflated by the ease of his looks.

Can RHJ or Markel evolve from 1 way players into 2 way players? If so, that would be huge for Brooklyn. RHJ and Markel should be around in 2016-2017 regardless, but these questions will influence how good they can be.

And for my money, both players, particularly RHJ, can do it.

 

 

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